When to Take Your Sick Child to the Pediatrician

By Esther L Ellis
March 27, 2024
A doctor listens to a young boys breathing with a stethoscope. The boy is being held by his mother.

It’s normal for kids to get sick eight to 12 times a year, but how do you know if they’re sick enough for a doctor’s visit? Here, Duke Health pediatricians Ashley Edmonston, MD, and Kevin McEnaney, MD, explain seven signs that signal it’s time to take your child to the pediatrician.

1. Symptoms Last More Than Seven Days

Cold symptoms usually reach their worst after three to five days. A runny nose or slight cough can last longer, but neither should be as severe. If there is no improvement in your child’s symptoms after seven days, see the pediatrician, said Dr. Edmonston.

2. Difficulty Breathing

Difficulty breathing could be an indication of asthma, a more severe case of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), or something else. If your child is having any trouble breathing, contact their pediatrician.

3. High-Grade Fever (Over 102 degrees)

A fever higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit should always be examined by a doctor, said Dr. McEnaney.

4. Eye Redness or Itchiness

Pink eyes should always be evaluated by a pediatrician, even if you don’t suspect the condition known as “pink eye.” Eye itchiness and redness can interfere with learning, and “there are significant eye infections that can develop in children, so having somebody look at it is important,” said Dr. Edmonston.

5. Painful Sore Throat

A sudden painful sore throat can signal strep throat, but that’s not the only reason to make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician. “Several viruses can mimic strep throat,” said Dr. Edmonston. “It’s always best for us to test so we know what your child actually needs and if they would benefit from an antibiotic.”

6. Vomiting or Diarrhea for More Than 24 Hours

If your child has an ongoing stomach bug causing nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea, their pediatrician can help you determine if they need medication, imaging, or lab work. They can also evaluate for dehydration and help you decide if intravenous (IV) fluids are needed.

7. A Rash That’s Not Improving, Is Crusty, or Has Spots

Reach out to the pediatrician if your child has a rash that doesn’t improve after several days, and if they also have a fever or difficulty breathing at the same time. Pinpoint purple or red spots that don’t disappear briefly when pressure is applied to the skin could indicate a serious illness and should be checked by a doctor, especially if they also have a fever. Additionally, a rash that’s crusty, blistering, or oozing; or a rash that looks like a bullseye or oval should be evaluated by a pediatrician.

What You Can Do to Reduce Sickness

You can help your child stay healthy by staying up to date on their vaccinations and making sure they eat a balanced diet and are drinking plenty of water, said Dr. McEnaney. Getting adequate sleep can help improve your child’s immune system.

Teaching your child good hygiene like washing their hands regularly and keeping their hands out of their mouth is also important. Other than that, there’s not much more you can do, Dr. Edmonston said. “Even if they’re doing a fantastic job with hygiene, kids are going to get sick often because they’re being exposed to so many things,” she explained. Fortunately, children build immunity as they age, so illnesses become less frequent despite more exposure, added Dr. McEnaney. 

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General Pediatrics